Oct 25 2001 – Another election victory for John Howard will accelerate Australia’s marginalisation into international irrelevancy, writes Paul Keating.
On election night 1996 I said, in the wake of John Howard’s victory, that when the government changes, the country changes. On one occasion, Howard said that he was the most conservative leader the Liberal Party had ever had.
I knew from my experience of him that this was true; that he was not only a conservative but that he actually reacted against change. I knew that with him the country would change. But in the past five years it has changed to a more remarkable degree than even I had feared.
I knew Howard would down the republic, no matter what he said about his commitment to a constitutional convention.
I said at the time that Asian governments would meet him but would not seriously deal with him because I knew he would soon show form and turn his back on effective regional engagement.
And I knew that given half a chance he would abandon any wider notion of reconciliation with our Aborigines; that he had his own rollback in mind for Mabo when the opportunity presented. I knew these things.
But what I didn’t know is that he would give a wink and a nod to Pauline Hanson’s first intolerant utterances; that he would encourage her to rekindle some of the smouldering resentments in this community and that he would use them to light up his own political fortunes.
The effect of Howard’s reactionary political creed is he has led Australia down a pathway which I believe is backward, exclusive and insular right at the time when Australia was succeeding in being more certain about itself, more relevant to the region around it and more influential in the world generally.
What Howard has managed to do is to establish himself as the most conservative force in the country. He has done this by displacing Hansonism, the outrider phenomenon that flourished to the Liberal Party’s right.
Howard’s objective has been to hold out as a tablet of modern Liberal Party orthodoxy the notion that Australia can prosper exclusively and apart from its surroundings. That it can adopt attitudes internally that are at odds with international norms of enlightened development. His approach has been to sneer and stigmatise “political correctness” in favour of an incorrectness that grants authority for the expression of base ideas of exclusivity when it comes to race or creed. Such ideas rest on a foundation of implied righteous superiority.
Five years ago Howard let Hanson test her wares in the community. Having taken note of her political and social co-ordinates, he has adroitly moved to her right. This represents a very great change for Australia. In making this shift, the Prime Minister has broken one of the conventions of postwar Australian political leadership: that the political system needs to lead the country through some of the cultural shoals of race on which it might otherwise snag itself.
The country has many good instincts. But one of the reasons it has is that it has been led to them. When Gough Whitlam removed racial selection from our migration policy in 1972 he did something which at the time would not have been endorsed by a majority.
When Malcolm Fraser gave more explicit definition to the reality of multiculturalism he was taking a position on which his constituency would not necessarily have supported him. In many ways the same is true of all postwar governments, Labor and Liberal.
Howard has broken decisively with this tradition, reflecting his long-held reservations about the cultural impact of the migration program and embracing what he sees as clear electoral opportunity.
To compound his indulgence he now manages an election campaign as though the country’s very limbs and liberty are at risk.
There are indeed dangers in the post-September 11 world. But an earnest leader would comprehend those threats in the context of reassurance. But not Howard.
And definitely not Peter Costello, his deputy. Costello quite wilfully and brazenly sought to frighten Australians by telling them we were equal third with Canada on the list for terrorist reprisals, after the United States and Britain.
This reckless assertion is not even factual. There is no such list. And the judgment that led Costello to this sort of loose and dangerous talk is cynical in the extreme. Yet Costello is supposed to be the enlightened face of the Liberal Party.
This Government, in pursuit of electoral gain, will play fast and loose with the country’s conventions and, I believe, with its moral substance. It will frighten people in election campaigns. If necessary, it will attack institutions such as the High Court. Nothing is out of bounds. When it suits, it will play to the country’s darkest fears. In Peter Reith’s case he even suggested that the fleeing Afghans were kith and kin of the terrorists. Though they were the victims, he lined them up with the perpetrators.
Should Howard be re-elected, I believe, the country will pay an enormous price. Those in the region around us who, until now, have regarded Howard’s two victories as an aberration will, I believe, sullenly bed down for the long term in their dealings with Australia. Our marginalisation, now advanced, will accelerate.
At APEC, President Megawati Sukarnoputri of Indonesia seriously snubbed Howard. He was unable to do any real or serious business there. The Australian media, hungry for anything, had to be content with a friendly snap with George Bush after the APEC group photo. Though committed resolutely to the US in the response to September 11, Howard couldn’t even get a bilateral meeting with the President.
Strategically, Howard is dead on his feet. He is irrelevant to the Americans in Asia and his Government’s murky reputation in the region runs the risk of burying him and our interests with him.